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Happy Birthday, Boss

Happy Birthday, Boss - Stan Lynde's

On the night before Christmas, Conniption’s streets lie empty and dark. The shops and stores of the town are closed for the night, slumbering under a blanket of fresh snow. Only the saloon shows signs of life as a single rider, gunfighter Hipshot Percussion, rides through.

Hipshot is a loner, a hard man. He passes the church, the saloon, and rides away from town. He rides past the home of lawman Rick O’Shay, his best and perhaps his only friend. Hipshot knows he would be welcome at any of the three places celebrating Christmas, and yet he stops at none of them. Instead, he rides to the top of a snowy hill and draws rein. Removing his hat, he raises his eyes to one bright star that hangs above the valley and says,

“Happy Birthday, Boss.”

During my nearly 20-year run with my first syndicated cartoon strip, Rick O’Shay, I wrote and drew approximately 6,300 daily strips and perhaps 1,000 Sunday pages. And yet no other single cartoon that I produced even comes close to equalling the popularity of the “Happy Birthday, Boss” page.

Why, I wondered. What is there about that particular cartoon that has touched so many people across America and around the world?

I think the answer lies in the nature of our relationship with the natural world and with the power that created the universe in which we dwell. As individuals we may have been disappointed or turned off by organized religion. We may have followed dark trails that led to dead ends and pain. We may even have come to deny the existence of a creator at all. (If we can do that, Hipshot says, we just aren’t paying attention.)

Growing up among cowboys, sheepmen, and ranch people in eastern Montana, I noticed a common trait. Men who earn their livings in the natural world are often deeply spiritual men. They may not confess an established denomination, they may not have been inside a church or synagogue since childhood, but they nearly all seem to be aware of a creative power in the world, a power Hipshot refers to as “The Boss.”

How could it be otherwise? Men who live close to creation, whose lives and welfare are affected on a personal level each day by the weather, who witness the cycle of the seasons, the miracle of birth, the progression of growth, decline, and death, how could they not be believers?

This year, whether your journey takes you to the top of a snowy hill on a winter’s eve, whether you acknowledge Hipshot’s church as your own, or whether you find your trail leads to a stable in Bethlehem beneath a single bright star, I wish you and yours every blessing on this birthday of The Boss.

Merry Christmas!


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From the Cutting Room Floor

(In its October 2011 issue, True West published an interview with me in its popular What History Has Taught Me feature. The interview was well received, and I’ve heard from a number of the magazine’s readers since it appeared. However, True West–and virtually every other publication–edits its pages for content and space, and much of the original interview wound up on “the cutting room floor.”

For those of you who have asked to see the interview in its entirety, it is published herewith.)

On my father’s ranch I learned

to sit a horse, and to work cattle and sheep. I learned that no task was beneath me and that if a job needed doing somebody needed to do it. As the “kid” of the outfit that somebody was often me. “Whoever you work for, ” Dad said. “Make them a good hand.” That piece of parental advice became a work ethic that helped me to succeed even at jobs I didn’t like all that much.

We lived in every kind of dwelling

I was born in the very heart of the Great Depression. Jobs were hard to come by, and Dad considered himself fortunate to find work herding sheep at $30 a month on the open ranges of the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana. With my mother and myself, Dad followed the sheep to new grass and a variety of temporary homes–sheep wagons, tents, dugouts, cabins, and ranch houses.

The Inspiration for my first comic strip Rick O’Shay

As a small child I loved the comics. My parents read the daily strips and Sunday pages to me, and I thought they were magic! One day, when I was about five, I asked where comics came from and was told they were written and drawn by people called cartoonists. That revelation was a major epiphany for me. It had never occurred to me that a person actually wrote and drew comic strips; I guess I thought they were some kind of natural wonder, like Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon. Anyway, I resolved from that day to someday, somehow, become a cartoonist. I could imagine no better vocation.

I had little contact with other children in those pre-school years, and hung out instead with cowboys and ranch hands. I loved to listen to their stories, and the cowhands were my heroes. They took time to answer my questions, they played make-believe games with me, and tolerated my presence in their bunkhouses. My resolve to become a cartoonist added a refinement; I would be a cartoonist who wrote and drew about cowboys. Years later, my ambitions were realized; everything came together in Rick O’Shay.

Growing up my comic strip heroes were

Fred Harman’s western strip Red Ryder, Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, and many others–but chiefly, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. The incredible artwork and color set a standard I admired and tried to emulate.

In the almost 20 years I did Rick O’Shay

the strip developed a devoted following. Readers wrote to say they were sure I’d based the fictional town of Conniption on their home towns. My gunfighter character Hipshot regularly received romantic mail, from little girls to women in their eighties and nineties. Men and boys wanted to be Hipshot. Followers found models for living and even for their spirituality in the strip’s story lines. Now, 34 years since I drew my last Rick O’Shay strip, I still hear from readers who grew up with the strip and not only read it for entertainment but also for its values. I don’t fully understand that level of devotion, but I am humbled and awed by it, and more grateful than I can say.

My second strip Latigo was inspired by

Shortly after leaving Rick O’Shay I was contacted by Field Newspaper Syndicate, who commissioned me to create a western strip for them. Latigo was the result, and the strip began its run in 1979 and grew to include just under 100 client newspapers nationally. The strip was well received by its readers, if not to the extent Rick O’Shay had been. The early years with Latigo were ironic in some ways. In 1979 some newspapers actually carried both Rick and Latigo on their comic pages!  By 1983 the story strip had all but disappeared. Readers were not as willing to wait ten to thirteen weeks for a story to unfold in their daily newspapers. Mini-series on television told their stories in three or four nights and feature films told theirs in two hours. Gag-a-day strips would become the norm in newspapers, and story strips would fade out. Reluctantly, I retired Latigo and moved on to writing western fiction.

The two strips are different but…

Rick O’Shay began in 1958 as a humor strip and a satire. At a time when newspapers were casting a wary eye on the new medium of television, newspaper feature syndicates were all too happy to pick up a strip that might lampoon television programming. In that year the networks were saturated–there’s no other way to say it–with westerns. At least two dozen westerns ran each week on all the major networks, some well-written and produced, and some, in the apt phrase by Gary Cooper, were “easterns in big hats.” Rick O’Shay spoofed the formula westerns from the standpoint of the real west and its values, The strip evolved into a character-based story of the West, but balanced dramatic stories with humor, and has maintained devoted followers to the present day.

Latigo was different, necessarily, but similar as well. The qualities and icons that exemplify the western story carried the narrative, but the strip went beyond the traditional rustlers, train robbers, and bad men to the corporate greed of the nineteenth century robber barons who answered to no other law than the bottom line. Latigo wasn’t as somber as that might indicate, however. Like Rick O’Shay, the strip alternated between drama and humor.

I don’t miss

the man-killing schedule writing and drawing a daily strip requires. Producing six dailies and a Sunday page each week is something like shoveling coal on a freighter or trying to go up the down escalator. Required by contract to produce new and original material seven days a week for life, cartoonists who draw a daily strip compete against themselves.Their best ideas are used up at a steady, unforgiving rate, and unless they find a way to renew their muse (the muse to amuse?) they may begin to repeat themselves or suffer burnout. Still, the good outweighs the bad. After a nearly thirty-year career in cartooning I find it has been all I hoped it would be and more. As Montana’s own Charlie Russell put it long ago, “Any time I cash in now, I win.”

The best advice I ever got was

The main thing I’ve learned about good advice is that you seldom appreciate it until you’ve ignored it for awhile. There’s a great scene in the Robert Mitchum film The Lusty Men in which an old, broken down cowboy tells Mitchum “the trouble with books on success is they’re all written by successful men. Now if you had a book on success written by a failure, why then you’d really have something.”

I’ve certainly had my share of good advice, some of which I acted on to good effect, and some that I ignored to my regret. Some of that good advice was humorous but deeply wise, like another old cowboy who said, “Don’t like life too serious…you ain’t gettin’ out of it alive anyway.”

My dad always told me

I received a leather-bound autograph book for my twelfth birthday, and asked my dad to make the first entry. He looked at the page thoughtfully for a moment, and then drew a series of elk tracks diagonally across the page. Then he wrote, “As you go through life, you will make tracks. Be sure to make yours plain and clear.” Dad didn’t explain his entry, and I didn’t ask him to. But as I thought about it over the next several days I came to recognize it as fatherly advice and a lesson for life. “Live in such a way that you have nothing to conceal,” it seemed to say. “Leave your mark on the world boldly and clearly, with honesty and pride.”

I haven’t always followed Dad’s advice, but I have tried–with varying degrees of success–to make my tracks “plain and clear.”

My third strip, Grass Roots, was born

in the fall of 1984 as a self-syndicated feature for weekly newspapers, principally in the west. I believe that much of the national media–for a variety of reasons–seldom reflects the views and values of people in “grass roots” America, and my cartoon series was designed from the beginning to do just that. Through my characters Billy and Shag I set out to express the convictions and attitudes of the people who are the very heart of America, honest, hard-working folks who live out their lives, pay their taxes, raise good kids, worship together, and serve their communities without fuss or feathers.

The initial cartoons in 1984 and 1985 were set in the Old West, with Billy and Shag working for an old-time rancher. That first series dealt with contemporary issues and concerns, including inflation, gun control, agriculture, victims rights, child abuse, religion, patriotism, politics, pride and prejudice. The series was well received but failed to generate enough revenue to keep the wolf from the door. I took a break from cartooning for a time, doing some commercial illustration, oil painting, and writing.

With fellow cartoonist Barry McWilliams and long-time friend Jim Wempner, I spent the next few years promoting and organizing The Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive, which celebrated the state’s cattle industry during the fall of 1989. From September 4-9, 100 drovers pushed 2,812 cattle 60 miles from Roundup to Billings, Montana, followed by 208 covered wagons, 3,337 horses for 2,397 people, and 79 horse wranglers. The drive received international news coverage and proved to be an unforgettable event for all who took part.

The person who has had faith in me from the beginning

is my wife, Lynda. I married Lynda Brown in 1989 and shared my stories with her. She must have been impressed. Lynda read a film treatment I’d written and instantly brought the same total commitment to my career as she has to our marriage and our blended families. Lynda encouraged me to write western fiction, we formed our own publishing company, and I began work on my first novel. We also produced a number of books reprinting cartoons from Rick O’Shay, Latigo, and Grass Roots. Her faith in me and my work has never wavered in the 22 years since. She has believed in me when I wasn’t all that confident myself!

In 1998 and 1999 we re-syndicated Grass Roots, once again offering the cartoon to weekly newspapers across the west and midwest. I expanded the cast–Billy and Shag worked for a contemporary cattleman with a weight problem–and the feature was placed in the present instead of the Old West. The cartoons and commentary were published by our company and are still available in book form at retail outlets and through our distributor, Mountain Press Publishing. The cartoons also appear weekly here on my blog.

I wrote my first novel in 1995

My first effort turned out to be a coming of age story of a boy’s struggle to deal with his father’s murder and to become a man. To my surprise, the book turned out to be a struggle as well. I’d been writing westerns all my life in one form or other, drawing on remembered incidents and people, research, and my own experience. Why, I wondered, was this story so difficult?

The answer, of course, is that a novel is different from a comic strip or screenplay. I realized I would have to put in some time and effort to learn the new form. I was not really such an old dog, but I would have to learn some new tricks. I was blessed to have a gifted writer as a friend and advocate. Author of the best-sellers Blood Red Wine and The Triton Ultimatum, Larry Delaney became my drill sergeant and mentor. Larry taught me how to give life to my writing and encouraged me to raise my standards. He helped me to become a novelist.

I continued to struggle with my coming of age story, and finally gave up and put it aside. I went back and re-read some of the western authors I most admired–A.B. Guthrie Jr., Dorothy M. Johnson, Ernest Haycox, Luke Short, Will Henry–and one day I heard a new voice inside my mind. The voice, it turned out, belonged to a young cowboy with a story to tell. The cowboy was Merlin Fanshaw, and his story became my first novel, The Bodacious Kid.

Since then six more books featuring Merlin’s adventures have been published, and the Kid has grown older and wiser with each one. I’ve been asked which of the books is my own favorite. I usually say, “The next one.”

The award I’m most proud of is

Western Writers of America’s 2009 SPUR Award for the original audio book of my novel Vendetta Canyon. The SPUR Awards, given annually for distinguished writing about the American West, are among the oldest and most prestigious awards in American literature. Receiving the award was especially gratifying because it was something of a double win. I not only wrote the novel but narrated the recording as well.

Of all the places I have lived, I love

Montana! Fourth largest state in the Union after Alaska, California, and Texas, Montana is long on beauty, rich in history and friendly independent people. Still under a million in population, Montana feels more like a community than a commonwealth. Its citizens like to say, “Montana is a small town…with long streets.”

Montana has blue ribbon trout streams and some of the best hunting and fishing in the world. It has prairies and lakes and includes all or part of two national parks. Best of all, from my point of view, Montana has mountains. Years ago, I drew a Sunday page featuring Rick and Hipshot riding in the high country. Rick was going on about all the famous and historic churches and cathedrals there are in the world and how they couldn’t compare to the beauty of the mountains. Hipshot agreed, but said, “Don’t be too hard on them man-made wonders. These mountains had a better architect.”

I love to

Sing! And I love all kinds of music, from classical to country, from opera to rock. Because my interest in things western is so strong, people are often surprised to learn that my taste in music is so broad. I especially enjoy the torch singers and crooners of the American Song Book, but especially the ladies of song: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, June Christy, Anita O’Day, and–on the country side–Patsy
Cline. Favorites on the current scene include Norah Jones and Margie Nelson. I’m neither talented nor good myself, but I certainly appreciate the great song stylists.

I am good enough to hold down a place in a church choir. Fortunately, most churches are desperate enough for singers to even allow me in!

What makes me laugh hardest are

Peter Sellers movies, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, comic strips Pogo, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes. Cowboy poet Baxter Black, stand-up comics Richard Pryor and George Carlin. My grand-kids are usually good for a laugh, too!

History has taught me

that the times may change but not the people. We humans have long since discovered all the sins and virtues; we just keep on repeating them. But good will triumph over evil. How do I know?I’ve read the Book.

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A Letter from Moses

Charlton Heston as Moses

Charlton Heston was my friend.

We met only once, for a few hours at his Beverly Hills home.

A dozen letters, a phone call or two, and a score of Christmas cards mark the full extent of our communication.

And yet I consider my friendship with Charlton Heston one of the high points of my life.

Why? Because of what he taught me at one of the lowest points of my life.

“Chuck” Heston was an encourager.

In 1977, after nearly twenty years as creator, artist, and author of the cartoon strip Rick O’Shay, I was leaving my creation. Contract negotiations with the syndicate that owned and distributed the strip broke down. Verbal assurances were withdrawn. Ultimatums were delivered, and declined. There would be no compromise, no meeting of the minds. The strip I had created and developed would be taken from me and continued by “a new creative team.”

Like many another American before and after, I was suddenly unemployed, with payments to make and a family to support. I was angry. I was discouraged. I was depressed. Syndicate announced the change to Rick O’Shay’s client newspapers and an avalanche of letters filled my mailbox.

“How could you?” the writers asked. “Say it isn’t so!” they pleaded. “Why did you sell Rick O’Shay? (I didn’t, of course. The strip belonged to the syndicate from the moment I signed my contract. In 1958, signing over the rights to his creation was virtually the only way for a new cartoonist to become syndicated.)

Then one particular letter arrived. It was from, of all people, Charlton Heston.

The Academy Award-winning star of Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, El Cid, Touch of Evil, Julius Caesar, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Will Penny, The Mountain Men–had written a fan letter…to me! (My then eight-year-old son called it my “letter from Moses.”)

In the letter, Heston expressed his regrets at the news I was no longer drawing Rick O’Shay. “I cannot help regretting,” he wrote, “that we will see no more of the beautifully drawn and engaging characters with which you populated Conniption.”

He went on to compliment me on my draftsmanship and added, “As an actor, I also valued the high quality of your dialogue. Believe me, not many writers have your ear for spoken English. I always noted with additional pleasure the pains you took to emphasize the right words, too. The lines were read well.”

“Let me thank you for the pleasure you’ve given me,” he concluded, and signed the letter, “Gratefully, Charlton Heston.”

He could not have known how important his words were to me at that particular moment. I wrote to tell him and to express my admiration for his film work. Thus began a friendship between us that lasted until complications of Alzheimer’s disease ended his remarkable life.

I went on to create a second nationally syndicated strip, Latigo, and a self-syndicated feature, Grass Roots, before turning my hand to western fiction in 1995. My friend, “Chuck” Heston, was there to encourage me every step of the way. He wrote an introduction to the very first book I published, Rick O’Shay, Hipshot, and Me. He read my novels and recommended them to others.

As I came to know him better, I learned that Chuck frequently took the time to express his appreciation to the people he encountered. He taught me by his example the power of encouragement, and he reminded me we can all make a difference.

Maybe we can’t solve all the problems of our fallen world or set the wrong things right, but we can make a start. We can let our children know we believe in them. We can offer a compliment to our spouse or significant other. We can smile at the mail man. We can wave to the paper boy. We can tell a waitress we appreciate her service; better yet, we can tell her boss.

We can, like my friend Chuck, be an encourager.

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I Tell Stories

I tell stories.

I tell sad stories, glad stories, best-you-ever-had stories; stories of then and stories of now, stories of when and stories of how. But mostly I tell stories of the American West and of the people who lived out their lives in that great and spacious region during the last half of the Nineteenth Century.

I grew up on such stories. My grandfather was a horse trader and owner of the first livery stable in our town. He told me of hauling freight by wagon to far-flung towns in Wyoming and of gun battles he saw and heard about from men who took part in the Johnson County War.

My dad ran sheep in the tens of thousands on the grazing lands of the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana, and I spent my early years in the company of ranch hands, sheepherders, and cowboys who of course had stories of their own.

To the boy I was their stories seemed exciting, adventurous, and grand as all outdoors. I heard tales of mountain men, of gold seekers and vigilantes. I lived scant miles from the windswept hill where Custer fell, and I have walked among the ghosts. Cowboys told me of freeze-out winters and cattle drives up the trail from Texas, and spoke of other things I was probably too young to hear. I learned the names of the legends–Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, Wild Bill and Calamity Jane, Jesse and Frank, Wyatt and Doc.

I was hooked, and I still am. Even learning as I grew older that heroes have feet of clay and that glory has its dark side have failed to cure me.

I’ve told my stories in two nationally syndicated cartoon strips, RickO’Shay and Latigo, and since 1995 in seven western novels featuring the adventures of U.S. Deputy Marshal Merlin Fanshaw. Novel number eight is in the works, even as we speak.

At this late date I’ve abandoned all hope of recovery from my addiction to the history, lore and legend of the Old West, but I take comfort in the company and friendship of my many fellow sufferers, who love it as much as I do.

I tell stories.

For more stories, check my web site

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